To tackle future pandemics, address gaps in research and development

Covid-19 Swabs and samples at Lancet hospital 5th Ngong avenue in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The increasing threat of emerging and re-emerging infectious disease outbreaks have served to illustrate the central contribution that research and development (R&D) and its associated innovations play within the life sciences framework. R&D and its capacity to mount a scientific and technology-based response can't be over-emphasised.

Covid-19 showed us the gaps in our health research systems which were already under strain in addition to making the existing challenges more visible and significant.

For all the havoc that Covid-19 wreaked, it contributed unprecedented collaboration and innovation driven by a diverse range of research settings in both the public and private sectors. This collaborative approach appears to have accelerated scientific breakthroughs.

The shift in the clinical trials process - including responding to the urgent need for a Covid-19 vaccine - will need to be assessed to understand the lessons that can be drawn from this experience moving forward.

The health research system is expected to answer the following questions: How do we manage and control current epidemics? How do we prevent future epidemics and how can we be more prepared in the event of an outbreak of such crises?

To control and manage future pandemics, and to effectively prevent and respond to future epidemics, there are knowledge gaps that need to be addressed in various fields, and a wide range of research in basic sciences, clinical sciences, public health sciences, implementation science, and policy and system studies is needed to fill these gaps.

Countries have different systems, structures, and processes for health research. In some countries like Kenya, the research system is fragmented, and since a wide range of interdisciplinary research is needed to control and manage future pandemics, the way these separate parts interact is particularly important.

Kenya's research is either based in institutions of higher learning such as universities and established research institutions such as the Kenya Medical Research Institute for human health and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation for animal health.

Two building blocks of the health research system are particularly valuable in the control and management of future pandemics.

First, financing to secure research funds and allocate them accountable is key. There is always a great requirement for prudent stewardship of research funds by defining and articulating the vision for a health research system, creating and sustaining resources to strengthen and sustain the human and physical capacity to conduct health research and producing and using research that will be used to inform health policy, strategies, practices and public opinion. Further, promoting the use of research to develop new tools to improve health must be a key agenda of how research funds will be deployed.

Second, the development of clear and context-relevant financing strategies and mechanisms that can foster further public, private and international investment in R&D across the region.

Readiness for infectious disease outbreaks requires ongoing investment in research in a myriad disciplines, including basic biomedical research to understand the aetiology of disease, the causative agents, the symptomatology, clinical research to assess for safety and efficacy of potential new vaccines and drugs, and anthropological research to identify the contributing social and cultural factors.

To ensure successful resolution of the next major outbreak with minimal loss of life, we must have a more robust R&D strategy.

The writer is a Medical Doctor, Health and Science Editor at The Standard Group and ICFJ Fellow on Early Childhood Development